Nov 03 2013
Is there a Canadian anthropology? I’d like to believe that there is. Or, at the very least, that the possibility of such exists. I’m not sure where one might (or should) look to find it. I doubt that one will find a Canadian anthropology in the main centres (should I say centers?) of academic anthropology in Canada. But will we find it in the colleges, in applied practice, in government agencies? I really am not certain. What I am certain of is that my own home department is not a centre of Canadian anthropology even as it is a central site of anthropological production in Canada.
I’m going to approach this question in a semi-autobiographical account that focuses upon my own academic training.
I came to anthropology by accident. That is, I didn’t set out to study anthropology. I came to anthropology as an approach to learn about the world we live through a serious of serendipitous steps and accidents of fate. Perhaps my high school geography teacher, Peter Northcott, sowed the early seeds of an interest in social sciences. It was through conversations with him that I learned of the writings of people like Brian Easlea, the author of a pivotal book, Liberation and the Aims of Science (1973). Placing the responsibility for a lifetime of engaged political activity on the shoulders of my geography teacher isn’t quite reasonable. I grew up in a household hearing stories about the Winches and other born in BC social democrats from my mother. My family belonged to the cooperative movement – my father was a member of the fishermen’s cooperative in Prince Rupert. We shopped at the local co-op store. We banked at the credit union. At high school I learned about the Canadian tradition of social democracy – James Woodward and the ‘ginger’ faction of the early 20th century progressives. Hanging out on the docks I learned about the communist led fishermen’s union and the social democratic fishermen’s co-op (and their lifelong conflicts). Later I came to write about these things as a professional academic but at the time –the 1970s- these were the things that shaped my sense of the world.
At university I came eventually to the study of human society and culture. What drove me was an interest in being part of a social movement intent on making our world a more just and egalitarian place. This is when I found anthropology. As someone interested in mobilizing and organizing people I wanted to know why people act as they do (or why they don’t act). Anthropology, as a way of making sense of human actions and behaviours, became an avenue toward achieving my political goals. It’s not that I saw anthropology as being more progressive or inherently oriented toward political change – I didn’t (and I don’t). Rather, I saw potential in anthropology’s approach to studying human actions in small group settings.
In the 1960s and ‘70s the university and college system in BC expanded threefold. UBC was joined by the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University in 1963. UVic was created from a preexisting college. SFU was a brand new school. New colleges and vocational institutions were built during the late 60s and early 70s. But all of this expansion came to a close in the early 1980s. A new market ideology of restraint took over.
During my undergraduate I was intensely involved in student politics on campus and wider social justice movements off campus. The early 1980s in British Columbia was a politically turbulent period. In 1983 the entire province was shut down by a general strike that started in the public sector and spread quickly into civil society and private sector industrial sites. At the peak nearly 500,000 people were on strike. 150,000 marched through the streets of Vancouver. Internationally the US had deposed Grenada’s New Jewel Movement and it’s Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. The Sandinistas were battling the CIA funded Contra’s. In El Salvador the FMLN was battling one of the longest Central American liberation struggles against US backed paramilitaries. As a student activist we had lots to do. We realized that the struggles were mostly defensive, but we held onto the hope that we could make a difference.
At SFU, I studied with a group of predominantly Canadian faculty in History, Sociology, and Anthropology. As my studies progressed my course work became more focused on the anthropology side of my department and the faculty I found most influential were people like Beverly Gartrell (Canadian, PhD CUNY), Marilyn Gates (American, PhD UBC), Noel Dyck (Canadian, PhD Manchester), Gary Teeple (Canadian, PhD Cambridge).
It’s hard to say if what was taught at SFU could be considered a Canadian anthropology. With Gartrell we studied East Africa, with Gates it was Mexico and Latin America, with Noel Dyck it was the anthropology of the everyday and First Nations. Teeple, the lone sociologist among my faculty influences was a left nationalist and from him I studied Canadian political economy. There were other influences, such as the Canadian social historians Bryan Palmer (PhD SUNY Binghamton) and Alan Seager (PhD York University) – both leftists (Palmer clearly Marxist and Seager more social democrat) and the self identified conservative, Philip Stigger (British, BA Bristol). What was particular to our situation was that our experience in learning was linked to a form of civic engagement on our campus and in our wider communities.
One course that played a particularly critical role in shaping my ideas of research was a social impact assessment course taught by Marylyn Gates. She had arranged a series of guests, one of whom was Jim Green. At the end of his talk he paused and then challenged us to actually do something to make a difference. Four of us picked up his challenge and we went on to organize a major urban survey and social research project. This was a project that combined our interests as university students and the interests of the community that was the subject of research. While we designed the project the control and direction rested with the community group in charge. Jim insisted that for every university student that we were able to hire to do fieldwork there would be one community member as well. This idea of community/university research teams has been a central aspect of my own approach to research ever since.
As I continued my academic journey I travelled east to York University to do my master’s degree in their Social Anthropology program. At York the professors most instrumental in my education were: Malcom Blincow (Canadian, PhD Manchester), Marilyn Silverman (Canadian, PhD McGill), Gerald Gold (Canadian, PhD Minnesota), and Margaret (Rodman) Critchlow (American, PhD McMaster). The York program was clearly, while I was there, a ‘social anthropology’ program influenced more strongly by the British tradition than the American tradition in anthropology. While there I found myself less and less engaged in community-based politics, though I was quite involved in the union of teaching assistants, which was then an autonomous Canadian trade union, not part of the larger US dominated trade union movement.
My doctorate was taken at the City University of New York. Though clearly part of the American tradition of anthropology it is arguably an atypical example. At CUNY I was able to study with Eric Wolf and June Nash, luminaries of American political economic anthropology. I took course with folks such as Delmos Jones, Leith Mullings, and Jane Schneider. My dissertation was Gerald Sider. Taken together my CUNY experience provided a background in political economic anthropology that understood the relevance of the intersection of social class, race, and gender in structuring the cultural particularities of place. While elsewhere in the US folks were getting twisted around discourse and experimental ethnographic expressions CUNY faculty still taught about making a difference in the world that we lived in. As a Canadian, an indigenous person, and a committed social activist, the CUNY approach complemented my sense of the world and helped to refine my critical and pragmatic arsenal.
I wonder what this all means in terms of whether there is or there isn’t a Canadian anthropology. From my personal academic biography I do follow the trajectory that one of my teachers, Marilyn Silvermen, described in her critique of a Canadian Anthropology Department hiring processes. She described two standard outcomes: the preferred: hiring Americans with American degrees; the almost as good: hiring Canadians with American degrees; the least preferred, hiring Canadians with Canadian degrees. I fall under outcome two: Canadian with an American degree. But I also know that the academic publications that were instrumental to being hired were all published on subjects related to the north coast of BC (and not related to my actual doctoral research in France). They focused on the relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people and upon the industrial history of the coastal resource economy. These were eminently Canadian topics of concern that fit within a long pedigree of Canadian anthropological research.
Ultimately, what makes or breaks a Canadian anthropology is hiring practice. In the colonial context that Canada finds itself, a context fraught with our own self-doubts and ambiguous feelings about our existence as a people, we look to those places in the globe that (with their overwhelming might) assert their way is the only right way to do things. We find the traces of our colonized history in the changing personal and degree trails of our faculty members. At UBC for example, the early faculty had primarily British degrees. Overtime this has shifted to primarily US degrees. We can also see it in the regional institutional hierarchies between PhD granting programs, four year programs, and colleges. Canadian PhD granting programs are peopled by about 2/3rds US degree holders. The college system is about 100% Canadian degree holders.
I suspect that if there is anything about my anthropology that separates it out from the dominant Imperial Americanist tendencies it is in the way in which my anthropology is tied to an activist orientation and a desire to see a better world that matters for the people in my home province of BC. Throughout my training I found my self drawn toward those faculty who were interested in making our world a better place – they were, truly, a minority among a minority (even more so the further from home I travelled). Jim McDonald, in speaking about Kitsumkalum (an indigenous northern BC people), describes how Kitsumkalum was marginalized in their own homes by the colonial process. They were socially and economically displaced without being physically displaced. That’s the story of colonialism. It is a story replicated within our Canadian institutions of higher learning where degrees minted south of the border seem to be more highly valued than those earned at home.
At the end of the day I am opposed to the provincialism of nationalist schools. I am, however, more opposed to the narrow mindedness of Imperialist schools of anthropology that are blind to their own provincialism.